Dawn in the Garden

Easter Sunday    March 27, 2016

Isaiah 65:17-25          John 20:1-18

Easter begins in darkness. It is easy to forget, as we gather here in this bright church for such a joyous celebration.  But it is good perhaps to pause for just a moment and remember how the Easter day began.  This is what we celebrated this morning just before dawn, when we gathered in Holy Trinity cemetery, kindled the Easter fire, and welcomed the rising sun.

“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb”.  While it was still dark.  She slipped out of her house, down the deserted echoing streets, and out of the city into the darkness of the trees in the garden.  Why so early?  Perhaps she couldn’t sleep, perhaps she was anxious to care for Jesus body, perhaps she was afraid to be seen.  We don’t know.  But what is clear is that the darkness around her echoed the darkness in her heart.  It was the calm aftermath of a tumultuous and heart-breaking week. She had seen her beloved Jesus hounded by a mob, tortured by the authorities, and die in agony.  It was the end of so many hopes and dreams.  She had dared to think that she was somebody, loved by God, that her life had value and meaning – and now that had been crushed.  And so she walks, numb, heart-sick, hopeless, walks through the fog of her grief to do the one futile thing she can do for Jesus.

And then, when she thought she couldn’t be hurt any more, the final indignity.  The stone has been rolled away.  They have taken away the body.  Even after all they had done to him, they still aren’t finished, they won’t even leave his body alone.  The leaden peace of the dawn is broken by the panic rising within her, the nightmare begins again, and she runs panting, heart and feet pounding, to the other disciples.  She hammers on the door, routs Peter and John out of bed, and back they come as the first light begins to wash over the garden.

I love the description of Peter and John arriving at the tomb.  You can just see the masculine mind at work in the meticulous account of the details: “He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself.”  Chief Inspector Peter is on the case, analysing the crime scene.  You can almost imagine them putting up police tape.  And then they return home, none the wiser, leaving Mary alone, weeping in front of the tomb.

And then, as the garden brightens, the story takes on a dream-like feel. Looking in the tomb, she sees two angels clad in white sitting there.  The weirdest thing is that she does not seem at all surprised to see them, although they had not been there a moment ago; there is no fear, no awe, no wonder.  It’s as though it’s the most natural thing in the world.  And then, immediately, she forgets about the angel: there is a figure beside her, the gardener, so she asks him about Jesus’s body.  Then she hears her name, and looks through her tears, and as sometimes happens in dreams, suddenly it is not the gardener standing there, but Jesus himself, Jesus real and solid and familiar, and she throws herself in his arms and feels his warmth and his blood pumping through his veins and his rumbling laugh.  And in that moment, the darkness inside, the fear and heartbreak and grief and brokenness, vanish, as though a door had been flung open in her heart, and the sun had come pouring in.  And she feels herself filled with joy and love.

Interesting that this scene plays out in a garden.  There is something so wonderfully dreamlike about a garden, any garden, at dawn, bathed in mist, the air heavy with the rich green aroma of life.  It is at once incredibly vivid and real, each leaf and flower and dewdrop emerging from the mist with a hyperreal clarity; and yet in its silence and peace it is not quite of this world.

It is no coincidence that John sets the scene in such an atmosphere.  There aren’t really many coincidences in the Bible, everything is connected.  And so of course this garden is intended to put us in mind of that other garden, the garden of freshness and innocence, that was at the very beginning.  The atmosphere, I think, is precisely that captured by Dylan Thomas in his wonderful poem, Fern Hill, as he speaks about the farm of his childhood:

And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
The sky gathered again
And the sun grew round that very day.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
Out of the whinnying green stable
On to the fields of praise.

John sets the resurrection story at dawn in a garden, because it is the story of creation.  What is happening here is something as momentous and fresh as when the world was born.  Mary has entered the dream time, when all things came into being; she is present in the first, spinning place at the dawning of a new world. With Christ’s resurrection “The sky gathered again /And the sun grew round that very day.”  It is the dawn of God’s new creation, God’s making this world anew, a new creation without suffering and sin and death.

It is the promise we read about in the first reading, from Isaiah:

For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice for ever
in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight. . .
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.

But what about us?  How does this poetry help us?  Because we don’t live in this dream time, where death has been overcome in the pure energy of life.  We live in what we like to call the real world, the world where death is still very much present and in charge.  We see it all around us, when we switch on the news; but more than that, we feel it in our bones, we know that death has a claim on each one of us, sooner or later.  We live in the world of hard facts; like Peter we can only look for clues to try to make rational sense of what is happening, and like Peter on that morning, we discover we can’t really prove anything. We are offered no proofs, no certainty, no firm guarantees that anything really changed on that morning.

What we are given is a story, an image, a promise, a snatch of poetry – a glimpse into that garden, into that dream time where God is at work making all things new. We cannot enter with anything as hard and crude as proofs.  We can enter only with our hearts and our imagination, we can enter only in hope and trust and the joyous love that the story may call up.  And sometimes, like Mary, we are given the opportunity to enter in, if only for a moment.  Sometimes we catch a glimpse of something that convinces us that the wondrous energy that has spun this world into being is the power of love, a warm, quick, fresh love that surrounds and upholds our world, but also, in a deeply personal sense, ourselves. And then the hope and the trust and the love can grow to a life-giving conviction: that the power of love is stronger and more real than death, that Christ has been raised from the dead, the first-born of God’s new creation, and that we ourselves someday will be drawn by that love into the dream time of that new creation, where all is life and joy and light.  Amen.